The death of John Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, demands an aggressive response to the Libyan government and also to the Americans linked to a pointless film that was bound to inflame passions in a part of the world most Americans barely comprehend.
First and foremost, American officials must demand of the Libyan government what Americans expected when Timothy McVeigh murdered 168 people in Oklahoma City: an aggressive and thorough investigation to track down and punish those responsible.
That would be true regardless of who was killed, but when the victims include a U.S. ambassador, sent to represent this country in a dangerous land, the response has to be swift and focused. Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador killed by terrorists since 1979. If the still-developing "new Libya" wants to be recognized by the world, then the world has to know that its representatives there are safe and that attacks will be met with an unwavering commitment to justice.
The attack in Benghazi was apparently prompted by anger at a film made in the United States that mocked the prophet Muhammad.
This is an especially painful death for Americans to absorb. Without U.S. support of Libyan rebels, the murderous thug Moammar Gadhafi might well still be in power rather than in his grave. Stevens, himself, assumed his final posting after serving as an envoy to the Libyan rebels. Now, Libyans have killed him.
It makes no sense from the perspective of Western experience, except that Westerners should already know that Islamic reaction to insults of Muhammad can turn violent. Protests swept across Europe in 2005 when a Danish newspaper published cartoons that ridiculed the prophet.
Americans, well accustomed to the double edges of free speech, shrug at that kind of insult; Muslims in the Middle East - at least some - take violent offense.
And that is the problem for Americans in restraining this kind of speech. The fact is that Sam Bacile, identified by the Wall Street Journal as an Israeli-American real estate developer in California, was well within his rights to make the film and to upload it to YouTube.
Similarly, pastor Terry Jones of Florida - the crackpot pastor who wanted to burn the Quran two years ago - was within his constitutional rights to promote the film and even to declare, offensive though it was, Sept. 11 as "International Judge Muhammad Day."
Do Bacile and Jones have Stevens' blood on their hands? No, that dishonor belongs to those who planned and executed the attack in Benghazi. But neither are they innocents.
A constitutional right presupposes some level of responsibility in exercising it. The First Amendment, famously, does not allow anyone to yell "Fire!" in a crowded theater, the guarantee of free speech notwithstanding. Nor does it allow the printing of child pornography, even though freedom of the press is guaranteed.
Bacile and Jones did something irresponsible and dangerous. They used their right of free speech in a way they knew could instigate violence, however unjustified and incomprehensible to Western sensibilities it might be. They are contemptible, a fact of which Americans should make these men well aware. The First Amendment allows that, too.
No doubt, some in this country will call for Americans to be pulled out of Libya and maybe other dangerous parts of the Middle East, as well. The instinct is understandable, but the United States needs a formal and influential presence in the region more than ever, as political change sweeps through.
It is our duty as well as in our interest to maintain a strong presence in this troubled region. Sadly, meeting that duty today means demanding justice for Stevens and those who died with him.